In an emotional plea on Capitol Hill, former Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Bobby Daniels called on the Department of Veterans Affairs to end the hold on processing Agent Orange claims for himself and thousands of other "Blue Water" Navy veterans of Vietnam.
When the VA put off processing the claims until January 2020, "It hurt bad," said Daniels, 79, of New Madrid, Missouri, who has received a terminal prostate cancer diagnosis.
President Donald Trump signed a bill in June authorizing disability benefits for victims of Agent Orange who served off the coast of Vietnam.
"Like many of my shipmates, we thought we had been handed a major victory," said Daniels, who served in the engine room of the carrier Lexington off Vietnam.
When the VA delayed the claims processing, "it felt like somebody sledge-hammered me across the mouth," he said.
Daniels struggled to his feet and labored to make a statement at a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday with lawmakers and representatives of major veterans service organizations.
Caregivers to Blue Water veterans were also caught up in the delay, said Claudia Holt, whose late husband, Frank Holt, served on the destroyer Prichett off Vietnam.
Claudia Holt said she quit her job as a nurse to care for her husband, who died in May, a month before Trump signed the Blue Water bill. She now has to wait for survivors' benefits, she said.
Before he died, Frank Holt told her: "You fought for me, now you fight for yourself," Claudia Holt said.
She joined Bobby Daniels in urging Trump to override the VA and order the processing of claims to begin immediately.
"Mr. President, we need you to lift the stay," Claudia Holt said.
At the news conference, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the VA has yet to give them reasons for the delay.
Tester said the VA is "dragging its feet" on processing the claims. "Our veterans shouldn't have to wait," he said.
When asked why the claims were delayed, Tester said, "I don't know. I haven't been told."
Takano said the VA has yet to respond to his requests for meetings to discuss the reasons for the delay.
"Is it necessary to stay all these claims? We're still waiting for an answer," Takano said.
Rick Weidman, a co-founder of Vietnam Veterans of America, said his organization had been assured in the spring that claims processing would be "ready to go" once the bill was signed into law.
"We all know the claim dies when the veteran dies," Weidman said. "What happens to those who die before Jan. 1?"
"Mr. President, ultimately it's your responsibility" to end the hold on the claims process, Weidman said.
Shane Liermann, deputy national legislative director for benefits at Disabled American Veterans (DAV), said he is at a loss to explain why the VA couldn't at least begin now to process the claims of some veterans, particularly those who are terminally ill or over the age of 85.
"Apparently, our pleas have fallen on deaf ears," he said.
Ryan Gallucci, a deputy director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said, "We know some of these claims can be granted today."
In his closing remarks, and in a brief interview with Military.com, Daniels said he suspected that "they'd rather delay our claims until we're too weak to fight or until we're gone."
He's already taken out a second mortgage on his house, he said, and his greatest fear is that his wife of 56 years, Judy, will be "left behind to struggle through these hard times alone."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.